An Open Letter from Erica Jong to Jane Smiley (On the ghettoization of female writers)

Dear Jane (if I may),

Of course it was lovely that your first novel received a major award. Can't remember whether it was a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, but not all of us are similarly blessed--or cursed. I was a prize-winning young poet who published a literary first novel - Fear of Flying - that led Paul Theroux to claim my heroine was "a mammoth pudenda." Of course John Updike was intrigued and amused as he was with your latest novel. Sex by women writers is always intriguing. You never know if they do what they write about, but you hope to find out. Henry Miller, my literary grandpa, thought I'd reinvented Tropic of Cancer for women, but he was dismissed as a dirty old man--something he definitely was not. He was a philosopher rather, more Socrates than Larry Flynt, but nobody really read him. They only smuggled in the Tropics from Paris and thought they were geniuses for it. If they had really read him (after he'd been banned in America for thirty years), they would have known that he was, in his own words, "always looking for the secret of life, dontcha know." He was a transcendentalist like Emerson, like Whitman.

But you mustn't conclude from your own good fortune that there is no prejudice against women writers. It has been there from the start and it still lingers in new guises.

In fact, if you look back through history, you will see it everywhere. Sappho, the inventor of love poetry, was remembered as a whore and a lesbian rather than the most original singer of ancient Greece. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century feminist, was called "a hyena in petticoats." Charlotte Bronte was attacked as an evil, unemployable governess. Victoria Woodhull, the first women to run for President of the United States was also a financial guru, Wall Street investor and publisher, yet she is remembered only for embracing free love. The Second Sex exposed Simone de Beauvoir to vociferous criticism by her Parisian male peers. Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch and all anyone talked about was how cute she was. Later, when she refused to be cute, her serious works were ignored. So, while you have been lucky in having your work recognized for its literary merit, many women have not. I am delighted that your first novel won you approbation as well as sales. But you are an exception. So, be grateful rather than dismissive of other women.

I thought your last novel was very interesting. Actually, we have a lot in common. You wrote a parody of The Decameron; I wrote a parody of Tom Jones and Henry Fielding in Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones. You wrote a novel modeled on King Lear; I wrote a novel modeled on Shakespeare's sonnets and The Merchant of Venice - Serenissima or Shylock's Daughter. In fact, we are two of a kind. You were fascinated with sexuality in Ten Days in the Hills and very deftly described sexual acts without resorting to four letter words. I admire that. So, what's all this nonsense about chopped liver?

The whole aim of my oeuvre has been to liberate women and women writers. I think you are doing something quite similar. We should be allies, not enemies. The same old, same old is the way men - male critics, male book chat people and many female book chat people - try to set women writers against each other. But we are wise to their game. We know that our strength must be in recognizing and nurturing each other.

Don't fall into that trap, Jane. The male literary establishment allows us in on sufferance. If we are good, they steal our metaphors as Ovid stole from Sappho, then damned her for a whore. Most women writers have been remembered for their love affairs, not their words. And the ghetto of chick lit is just the latest way of dismissing female talent.

Don't do that Clare Boothe Luce thing of wanting to be the only woman at the top of the heap, the token female. It doesn't become you. You are not immune to discrimination. You just don't feel it yet. I hope you never do.